Wealth of Nations September 2006

Is It War, or Business as Usual?

Democrats will be making a great mistake if they seem to downplay the seriousness of the security issue by deploring "alarminst" talk of war.

The nation is waging war on terror. If the Bush administration can convince America that this is true, the electoral damage to the Republican Party in November can be contained. If the country refuses to buy it, the elections will be a rout. So goes one main line of recent commentary. And the White House seems to agree: The president's television broadcast on Monday pressed the "war on terror" for all it was worth.

And that is not much, according to many of the administration's critics. In fact, they say, this way of describing the issue is worse than useless. It is either a mistake arising from incompetence or a cynical deception. (Some, puzzlingly, say both.) In any event, it twists policy all out of shape, hampering efforts to improve security, harming America's standing abroad, and uselessly rolling back precious civil liberties at home.

So far as the politics goes, I have no doubt that the Democratic Party will be making a great mistake if it seems to downplay the seriousness of the security issue by deploring "alarmist" talk of war. Politically, it is much better for the Democrats to say that Bush is right about the gravity of the situation—and that is why putting a stop to his incompetent handling of it is so important. Accusations of alarmism are just too easy for the Republicans to recast as unseriousness, as inattention to the problem. If I were a Republican standing in this election, nothing would please me more than for my opponents to seem to say—or lend themselves to the charge that they were saying—that I was taking terrorism too seriously.

Put politics to one side for a moment and ask whether all this war talk is wise on the merits. Talk of war conveys a sense of urgency, of national priority, of the need for sacrifices of one sort or another. This does not seem inappropriate to me. Self-evidently, this is not an ordinary war, so there is a danger of misdirected effort. There has been a lot of that. But using the word does not compel anybody to advocate policies that would be appropriate only for more familiar kinds of conflict. You can call this a war, as I am inclined to, and still deplore most of what the Bush administration has done, and failed to do, in prosecuting it. With no awkwardness at all, you can call it a war without believing that the word licenses any and all infringements of personal freedom, for instance—the more so, if we are to believe that it is a war to defend those freedoms, as the president keeps saying, and one that we will be fighting for many years, as he also keeps saying. Are these distinctions really so difficult to draw?

Something else is obvious, or ought to be: We are not facing an ordinary law-and-order issue, either.

It is a more difficult problem than that, and more is at stake. Just as war talk commits you to no particular policies, however, law-and-order talk leaves options open, too. Guided by that choice of words, you can still be wise or foolish, cautious or reckless, liberal or illiberal. Britain is much more accustomed to domestic terrorism than is the United States, and culturally more inclined to use understated law-and-order talk than pumped-up we-are-at-war talk. Yet in some ways the British government has taken the assault on civil liberties since 9/11 further than America has—those liberties were less well-entrenched to begin with—and would go further still if Parliament would let it. So I cannot see that the vocabulary matters all that much.

What counts is the analysis and the prescription.

A key question—for any political calculation, but on the merits as well—is whether 9/11 confronted the United States with a changed reality of international terror or merely with a new (and possibly false) perception of it. The Web site (www.foreignaffairs.org) of Foreign Affairs is running an interesting debate on this led by John Mueller, a political scientist at the Ohio State University and the author of a forthcoming book whose title makes his view on the matter pretty clear: Overblown: How Politicians, the Terrorism Industry and Others Stoke National Security Fears. In a new article, "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?" and in his comments for the Web site, Mueller stresses that he is not predicting zero attacks. There will likely be more "incidents," as he calls them, from time to time. But this danger must be kept in proportion, he insists; the menace of Al Qaeda has been grossly exaggerated. Yes, they will kill again, he says:

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